As early as 1852, railroaders, local merchants, and mineral speculators knew Natural Tunnel would be the most economical rail route to the coal fields of Lee County and the western part of present day Wise County, because the Tunnel would let them by-pass the formidable barrier of Purchase Ridge. Between 1852 and 1890 several companies tired but failed to complete a line through the Tunnel. Then in 1890, the South Atlantic & Ohio Railroad finally pushed the line almost 900 feet through Natural Tunnel, connecting Big Stone Gap and Bristol (the lower trestle below you is that line). Use of Natural Tunnel saved the railroad an estimated half a million dollars. In 1906, the Southern Railway purchased controlling interest in the line. In the 1920s and '30s, the railroad touted itself as "The Natural Tunnel Route." The famous "Lonesome Pine Special" passed through the Tunnel daily until passenger service ended in 1939. In 1982, the Southern merged with Norfolk and Western to form Norfolk Southern, the present name of the railroad.
Natural Tunnel became a tourist attraction in 1899 when excursion trains began running through it. Dances were often held on the pavilion pictured above. The Natural Tunnel and Caverns Corporation began operating the tunnel for tourists in 1928. The Commonwealth of Virginia bought the property in 1967 and opened the Natural Tunnel State Park in 1971.
The chairlift at Natural Tunnel State Park allows visitors to ride to the tunnel. The Park also offers hiking, camping, swimming, picnicking, caving, and canoeing, and has a visitor center, a meeting center, an outdoor entertainment amphitheater, and a replica of the Wilderness Road Blockhouse. However the tunnel and its coal trains remain the primary draw of the Park.